By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee residents who are authorized to be in the United States would be eligible for in-state tuition under legislation that advanced Tuesday in the state Legislature.
The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga was approved 7-3 in the Senate Finance Committee and will be scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor.
The companion bill (HB675) later passed a House education committee on a voice vote.(Note: That was the House Education and Planning Committee, where two members asked to be recorded as voting no; the legislative website indicates it still needs to go through House Government Operations Committee. House sponsor is Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis. It passed with just two panel members asking to be recorded as voting no on the voice vote.)
Under the proposal, students considered lawfully present in the U.S. through a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals would qualify for in-state tuition.
Such students now pay nearly three times as much for higher education — the out-of-state rate — even if they’ve lived in Tennessee for most of their lives.
Eben Cathey, spokesman for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, describes individuals in DACA as being in sort of a “limbo stage.”
They can apply for “lawful presence” and receive a work permit if they meet criteria that include having no criminal record; have lived in the U.S. for at least five years continuously; and have graduated from a high school, have received a GED or are currently enrolled in an educational program.
“They’re not on the pathway to citizenship … but they’re lawfully allowed to be here,” Cathey said.
The legislation, which failed last year, gained momentum in the legislative process this year once it was amended to apply to students only in the DACA program.
Before the change, opponents of the measure — mostly Republicans — were concerned such a proposal might encourage illegal immigration.
“I think with that amendment that I can vote for it,” Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, told reporters later Tuesday. “Before that amendment went on, I wasn’t real sure.”
House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley applauded Republican House sponsor Mark White of Memphis for continuing to push the bill when it looked like it might not pass this session and the bipartisan support for the measure.
“For our colleagues to realize that Tennessee has made an investment in these students … was a very gratifying thing,” Fitzhugh said.
Cathey said the amended legislation reduces eligibility from about 25,000 students to roughly 15,000, but he called the proposal a “tremendous step forward.”
“This is good public policy,” he said. “It’s good for our economy, and it’s good for all the students that are here that need a fair rate for school.”
Ginger Hausser is director of external affairs for the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees six state universities, 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology. She said the board supports the legislation.
“We know that as a state we’re better off when folks get educated,” Hausser said. “This is their opportunity.”
(Note: That was the House Education and Planning Committee, where two members asked to be recorded as voting no; the legislative website indicates it still needs to go through House Government Operations Committee. House sponsor is Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis.)